Outlawed Iranian director Jafar Panahi tells a personal story of oppression and loss through a film which owes much to the theatre of the absurd.
Banned from filmmaking for 20 years in 2010 on accusations of making ‘anti-state propaganda’, Jafar Panahi worked illicitly with fellow director and scriptwriter Kambozia Partovi to produce Closed Curtain.
The film is Panahi’s second since his ban, following This Is Not A Film, but while the earlier work took the form of a video diary of the director’s life as he confronts the harsh sentence of the Iranian court, Closed Curtain is an absurdist drama with an Alice in Wonderland twist that leaves most viewers baffled by the end.
The story centres on an unnamed screenwriter (played by Partovi) who retreats to a seaside villa with his dog for a period of quiet work. Both man and dog are fugitives – the writer wants to work out of sight of the authorities and is careful to hang black curtains on all the windows so that he can reside in the house unnoticed, while the dog is in danger due to a recent clampdown on ‘unclean’ animals.
The writer’s solitude is broken with the appearance of Melika, a mysterious girl (played by Maryam Moghadam) who is herself a fugitive from the police. The hapless writer then spends his time trying to figure out how the girl arrived in his house and more importantly, how to get rid of her, while Melika roams the property tearing open his curtains, much to his frustration, and asking searching questions about his work.
“If it wasn’t directed by Panahi then I doubt it would have garnered half the attention it has”
It’s easy to read the dialogue between the writer and the mysterious girl as that between a curtailed artist and his creative spirit. Melika’s absurd questions highlight the absurdity of the situation – a writer who is censured for his writing, which mirrors Panahi’s own experience as a filmmaker banned from making films.
So far, so existential. But the film takes a tumble down the rabbit hole when Jafar Panahi, playing himself, turns up in the house, and the writer is seen no more. Were he and the girl just part of a warped dream? Of course, it’s never that simple…
For those of you who, like me, don’t believe that the theatre of the absurd is half as clever as it thinks it is, well, you might find this film a little frustrating. If it wasn’t directed by Panahi then I doubt it would have garnered half the attention it has.
In fact, the most compelling scenes for me were those of the man alone with his dog; although almost void of dialogue, it was touching to see the silent companionship they gave each other. There was a tangible perk of excitement in the cinema when Panahi enters the film, but this changed to bemusement as the story left its hitherto linear narrative behind.
However, despite my criticism, Closed Curtain is another testament to Panahi’s resolve as a filmmaker, keen to create in spite of the pressure of the Iranian authorities. The director is said to have been very depressed when work began on the film, and the many references to suicide in the film betray the entrapment he feels at not being able to work legally.
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On hearing that the film had won the Silver Bear for Best Script at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, Javad Shamaqdari, then Iran’s deputy culture minister, criticised the festival organisers, saying: ‘We believe that the Berlin festival organisers should correct their behaviour… Making these films is illegal, but so far the Islamic Republic has shown patience towards such illegal acts.’
And in a move which clamps down not only on one of the country’s most renowned film directors but also on cinema – an area of popular culture where Iran manages to punch above its weight – both Kambozia Partovi and Maryam Moghadam had their passports confiscated to prevent them from promoting the film abroad. Now that really is absurd.